David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
I generally avoid making a distinction between a lay practice and the refined-life-practice of a Buddhist monk in a public discussion. While the roles within a Buddhist community and the Sangha leadership may have different aspects and responsibilities, the depth and wisdom between a lay and monastic practice can be much the same depending on individual commitment and capacity for understanding. From a Western point of view, many contemporary Buddhist teachers avoid defining a Sangha as only a community of monks/nuns, but take a pluralistic position that is inclusive. This is a useful and productive attitude that recognizes the values imbedded in the principles of our interdependence and interconnectedness.
However, there is an aspect to a life dedicated to the Bodhisattva ideal that is undertaken when one takes formal vows and commits themselves to living as monks, either as temple-monks or itinerant-monks. The intentional action to submit to a monastic life of purpose is unique and enhances an individual practice beyond a specific defined role. It is this unique motivation and life that I would like to present today. I address my thoughts to those individuals that have taken, or are in training to take, the step of professing monastic vows. Although many of the lessons here can be adopted into a lay practice as well.
First and foremost, becoming a monk (I wish to use the term to include both men and women) is not to adopt a different type of practice from a lay one. A Buddhist practice, is a Buddhist practice. Wearing monk robes does not change that. What makes a difference is “how we are” as we live within the monastic tradition. Of course having the time to devote to a dedicated practice without some of the worldly distractions is an additional element for a monastic life. So, the question that arises is, “What makes one a monastic?” The Christian tradition has a nice answer to this question that revolves around a “special calling and religious vocation.” We Buddhist generally don’t use these phrases to explain why one comes to understand their desire to become a monk. Make no mistake though, Buddhist monasticism is a vocation, as it is a human experience reflecting the spiritual dimension, answering a deeper self-awareness that even for me is hard to define. When we are moved to step onto the monastic path, we must understand just what it is we are committing ourselves to. “Why” is not as critical as “what” in this case. So the question expands to, “WHAT makes one a monastic, and WHAT is required of us?” The answers to these questions are critical to one’s understanding of how their life will change, and how the monastic-practice sets priorities and challenges, as we monks engage our everyday Buddhist practice.
As Buddhism moved West and encountered a culture familiar with monastic traditions (Christian), some assumptions on what a Buddhist monk was were taken for granted. We Westerners saw robes, ritual, temple buildings, chanting, and deep spiritual characteristics of the few Buddhist monks we came in connect with, that reinforced the idea of “monkness”. But the difference between Christian and Buddhist monastic practices were not obvious to the casual observer. It has taken a few decades for the Buddhist monastic structure to find roots in the West, and attract Western men and women to the Buddhist monastic life. Continue reading